A Quick Word on Why Government Shutdowns are BAD

Pictured: A place where good intentions go to die.

Well, folks, the time has come once again to observe yet another government shutdown. Given that this seems to be happening quite regularly these days, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on why government shutdowns are, to use the President’s vernacular, BAD.

So, the government shuts down. So what? I mean, most people only seem to notice that the federal workers aren’t working because they can’t get into national parks. And that seems like a relatively tame problem to have, doesn’t it? I mean, surely the bears and rocks and whatever can get along without the feds for a few days. It’s not as if anything else is going wrong, right?



Dear readers, I’m not calling you stupid. That comment was more focused on the various Congressional leaders and Executive Branch officials who seem to think shutting down the government is simply another policy option in their quiver. It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. And I have six big reasons why:

  1. Delay of projects
  2. Increased reliance on contractors
  3. Lack of fairness to federal workers
  4. Lack of services to the nation
  5. Poor national image
  6. Increased potential for civil unrest

Put together, these add up to Very Bad Things for the country, and yeah, I’m gonna explain why. Time to put your governance hat on, citizen, ’cause here we go.


Dear readers, I’m not calling you idiots. In fact, you should probably just assume that any comments in all caps are directed at the individuals mentioned previously. Moving on…

Every time you move a project to the right (in layman speak, delaying the project) it costs money and decreases the odds that it’ll be delivered on time (obviously) and in the right configuration (less obviously). This is because someone is still either working on or getting back pay for that project, regardless of whether the government is open or not. But since the government is shut down, the feds aren’t around. And if the feds aren’t around, no decisions can be made. And if no decisions can be made, there’s a hard limit to how much work can get done and how much a product can actually be deployed.

That costs money and reduces the amount of stuff government can accomplish. So every time the government shuts down for longer than a weekend, you, the taxpayer, are getting shafted. Seriously.


Every time the government shuts down, the feds go home. When the feds go home, the contractors run the show. When the contractors run the show without the feds around, they do whatever they were told to do before the feds went home. That may not seem like a lot, but it keeps the lights on and prevents some Really Bad Things from happening.

Now, that sounds just ducky, doesn’t it? Kind of like a get-out-of-jail-free card, yeah? Well, here’s the deal: within limits, it is. And that is a bad thing.

Let’s say you’re in charge of a federal agency. You now know that shutdowns are a “policy tool” that various members of Congress and the Executive Branch are willing to use. You also have a responsibility to your agency to, you know, do the mission. Keep planes from falling out of the sky. Keep the national defense grid up. Provide funding for state emergency services. Whatever.

What’s your incentive structure look like? Do you pour more money and political capital into hiring more feds, or do you invest in more contracts that will keep working regardless of whether the government is “open” or not? Contractors who aren’t really accountable to the public, and who are happy to charge two prices for everything, but at least they show up.

Yeah, you know what you’ll do. Sign those contracts. Because at least they’ll show up.

Look, when used correctly there’s nothing wrong with using contractors in the federal space. They have their place. But if you aren’t keeping key functions with the federal workforce, you lose in terms of money, responsiveness, transparency, and accountability. I have a whole other thing on that. Sufficed to say, it’s bad, m’kay? And it’s poor governance in a democracy. Seriously.


Who here is familiar with the concept of a mission critical workforce? Short version: there are some people in any federal agency who must show up for work, otherwise the country stops working. And those people are still working right now, even though the government is “shut down.” They’re just working for free.

Ok, so who amongst you would show up for work if your boss said “Hey, you have to come in, but I’m not going to pay you.” Not a lot of you, I’m guessing. Guess what? Almost every single federal employee who gets that call is going to work.

Partially that’s because they took an oath. Partially that’s because they take their jobs and responsibilities seriously. Partially it’s because they’re terrified of what would happen if they didn’t show up (planes falling out of the sky, etc.). And partially it’s because they’re pretty sure they’ll get back pay (but that’s not guaranteed).

Now for the sixty-four-million-dollar question: how many of those people are going to stick with the government, knowing that someone might pull this bullshit every fall? How many competent people are going to get a little ticked off because they couldn’t make rent in January and decide “Screw this, I’m out.” Probably some of them.

This isn’t fair to the federal workforce, and it’s not fair to the taxpayer to force out competent people who can easily get jobs in DC’s large (and growing!) contractor workforce — and who will then turn around and charge the government two prices on behalf of their new company to do the same work. I mean, you guys, seriously.


Ok, fair enough, not so much over the holidays. But as this thing draws out into January, all kinds of follow-on effects from the feds not working will start to manifest.

Contractors can keep the lights on, but that’s all contractors can do without federal guidance. The feds have to be there to make actual decisions. Like, oh I don’t know, whether to award your local Department of Transportation a road grant. Or whether to give money to a state education fund. Or whether to update our policy on housing migrant children. Or how, exactly, an agency has to update environmental building codes so that construction jobs in your home town can proceed.

Look, like it or not the government touches a lot in American business and American life. And if it’s not working… those things kinda run out of steam. It won’t happen all at once, and the government will probably resume soon enough to keep the consequences from being very severe, but this is a problem. Seriously.


Do I have to explain this one? Countries that don’t have operating governments in the long term are FAILED STATES. That’s a Bad Thing with a capital B and a capital T, because nasty things happen to failed states. And there’s no guarantee we won’t become one, other than sane people in the halls of power coming to a gentlemen’s agreement that, whatever differences of opinion they have, the United States must survive, and the government must remain functional.

Gosh, it’s a shame we don’t have sane people any more, isn’t it?

Now how do you think this looks to the rest of the world, hmm? To China? To Russia? To Iran? They must feel pretty friggin’ good about themselves right now, because at least they can keep the damn lights on in their halls of power.

Folks, this kind of thing doesn’t do democracy, in image or practice, any favors. And like it or not, we’re the world’s foremost democracy. And we’re in a time of authoritarian leanings, and that’s bad. We’re supposed to be making democracy look good. What the hell do you think this looks like? I mean, seriously.


I honestly feel like this one shouldn’t require much explanation either, but oh well…

You want to know what brought down the Roman Empire? I mean, barbarian invasion, sure, but that only worked because they’d been in slow decline for a few centuries. And that was due to the fact that they couldn’t keep their shit together because they kept inflicting damage on their own governmental stability. That caused no end of foreign consequences, but it also resulted in internal revolts, bad economics, and more than one instance of the Praetorian Guard picking the new emperor.

And that’s just one big example. History is FULL of instances where poor governmental stability led to riots, coups, civil wars, and just generally a whole basket of monkeys. We do not want to walk that path. And step one in not walking that path is keeping government (a) open for business and (b) stable. That keeps essential services running, and creates a cultural sense of certainty in the operation of government. Both of those are very good things. Not having them is a very bad thing indeed. Seriously.

Government shutdowns are bad. M’kay? So write your idiot congressmen and our idiot president to tell them all that they shouldn’t pull this crap with our livelihoods, national security, democratic institutions, national image, and sense of stability. Because the consequences are real, dire, and HERE.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.